Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Review: Stern Men

*Disclaimer: As always, this review contains spoilers so if you want to read this novel with bated breath don't read this review.  (Not that this is that kind-of book anyway, but just in case.)

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Gilbert which is why it pains me to say that I really, genuinely did not like this book.  I might go so far as to say that I hated it.

It isn't because her writing was sub-par in any way.  Gilbert shows the same astounding gift for dialogue and capturing the essence of real-life people that I first encountered in Pilgrims (her collection of short stories which I read prior to this) and I would still recommend her to anyone who was looking for a good example of writing strikingly real characters or dialogue.  She still does an amazing job of capturing the complexities of human relationships.  And she still shows the same flair for creating atmosphere with setting and she devotes more time to that in this book than pretty much anything else.  In fact, a much more accurate description of this book would be to call it a story of two islands and their people rather than a love story or even a coming-of-age story which is how most reviews describe it.

Where the book fails, however, is in the story itself.  Mainly, it's too damned short.  When I was still in the midst of reading this a friend asked me how long it was.  I told him it was a little under three hundred pages.  He commented on it being a rather short book and I realized that I hadn't really thought about it before then.  At the time, it didn't worry me.  That was until I finished a chapter ending in a huge development and then beheld the word "Epilogue" on the next page.  It hit me like a smack in the face.

And then as I read through that last chapter I was horrified to find that she had skipped over six years following the dramatic development in the previous pages and jumped straight to the (albeit heartwarming) conclusion of the story.  So far as the story arc goes she pretty much completely skipped over the climax and jumped right into the resolution.  I was shocked when I realized this.  And, to put it mildly, I was pissed.

"What the hell?  Did she not know how to write out that confrontation?  Did she write it but then scrap it for some reason?  Why the hell would she do that?"  I don't know the answers to any of these questions nor to the countless others that come up as she describes where all the characters are at six years later- because she didn't write them.

I'm not saying that you can't skip time in a story.  Heck, there's nine years between the second and third chapters and that didn't phase me at all.  What I am saying is that when the main character is revealed to have a huge life change in the works and her father has just learned this shocking revelation you don't skip over what happens next. 

What's more, the resolution, at least so far as the love story, doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense.  I mean, the main character meets this guy, they have a total of two relatively awkward conversations before walking off into the woods and screwing like bunnies (in one of the most graphic and out-of place sex scenes ever written, by the way).  The adults in charge are pretty pissed and one is expressly forbade to see the other so that by the time of that big revelation they haven't seen each other or spoken for about five months.  Then, in the epilogue six years later, they apparently have one of the happiest marriages on the planet even though the only thing they seem to do together is screw like bunnies.  I'm sorry, but great sex does not a miraculous relationship make.  And calling this book a love story because of that is just straight-up ridiculous.

And if you're in it for the other reasons- those complex relationships between the occupants of these two islands, their long history of distrust and warring over lobster fishing territory, their complex and somewhat fascinating way of self-governing and their chosen lifestyle which is so vastly different from the mainland- you'll still be disappointed.  Gilbert has the main character do something for the community which every single flippin' character in the book repeatedly says would never, ever happen and provides virtually no explanation as to how she does it.  Is she just magic?  What on earth did she say?  How could she possibly get them all to agree to that?  Explaining it all away by saying that because she was an accepted insider is not a satisfying end.

Like I said, I was pissed.  Still am, in fact (I'm sure you can tell).  I have absolutely no idea what purpose that giant skip forward served other than to ruin what seemed like it could have been a really good story.  And while this is no way detracts from my love of her other works it will make me wait a while before I pick up her new novel.


  1. That's a pretty comprehensive review, and you seem to have put your finger on a major issue. I'll have to see if I agree... after I finish EAT, PRAY, LOVE. You balanced criticism for a specific work with admiration for the author as a whole, which is hard. Have a great week!
    Diana at About Myself By Myself

  2. When you were reading it here, you said you were waiting for it to get good. Given your Gilbert fandom, I really hoped it would come through. That time skip sounds like the exact opposite as what we both hoped for.

    1. I was a little devastated writing a bad review of a Gilbert book, I have to admit. It seemed like it had so much potential. But I'm far from giving up on her- I've got a biography and another novel to try and my hopes have been moderated by this experience such that they can crush expectations. Will certainly be posting reviews of those here when they've been read.

  3. I hate when that happens, especially when I love the author

  4. BEV! We need you back at the Treehouse! We're publishing the collaborative Tree of Life story with audiomachine as a memorial tribute to Tina Downey! Head on over to our FB group page for the Google ebook link to edit chapter/add your bio & links/ words of tribute for Tina.

    Thanks, girl!


Thank you for your comment! I will love it and hug it and pet it and call it George. Or, you know, just read and reply to it. But still- you rock!